Travel hacking with less manufactured spend

It seems that the travel hacking community has been thrown into one of its periodic panics, first over the loss of a popular gift card reselling opportunity and then an online bill payment option. I don't participate in such panics myself, but it's an opportunity to ask the question: what would travel hacking look like not in a world without manufactured spend, but in a world with less manufactured spend?

It's a good question because in a world with plentiful manufactured spend, lots of things are worth doing that might not be in a more constrained world. For example, today I happily earn 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent with a Chase Freedom Unlimited card, essentially speculating that I'll get more than 1.3 cents per point when I ultimately redeem them (since I could use a 2% cash back card instead). That wouldn't make any sense (for me) in a world where every dollar manufactured on one card reduces the amount I can manufacture on the others.

So, here's what I would do in a world of severely constrained — but not eliminated — manufactured spend.

Chase Ink Plus or Ink Cash for office supply stores

I consider buying $200 or $300 Visa prepaid debit cards from office supply stores with a Chase Ink Plus or, if you're signing up today, Ink Cash, to be the best current opportunity, even though liquidating smaller-denomination gift cards can be time-consuming if you have to do it in-person. Paying $8.95 in activation fees and $0.35 for money orders lets you buy 1,545 Ultimate Rewards for $9.35. That's slightly more expensive than paying $4.30 for 756 Ultimate Rewards points by using a Freedom Unlimited at an unbonused merchant, but it's over twice as efficient, in that a single money order transaction made with four $300 debit cards earns 6,180 Ultimate Rewards points (at 0.6 cents each), while one transaction with four $500 debit cards earns just 3,024 points (at 0.57 cents each). In a world of limited manufactured spend, maximizing the total haul from each transaction would inevitably become a much higher priority.

Since flexible Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for 1.25 cents each for paid travel, doing this alone would let you earn $3,125 in paid travel each year for about $1,504.

Annual spend: $25,000 (Ink Cash) or $50,000 (Ink Bold or Ink Plus).

"Old" Blue Cash for grocery stores

For reasons that are beyond my petty comprehension, American Express still issues the "old" Blue Cash card that earns 5% cash back on up to $43,500 in purchases at supermarkets, gas stations and "select" drugstores in the United States. That's a devaluation from the previous, unlimited bonus earning, but it's still a lot of money.

Since grocery store spend is somewhat cheaper than office supply store spend, whether you prefer to prioritize Ink Plus or Ink Cash spend or "old" Blue Cash spend properly depends on the value you expect to get from Ultimate Rewards points redemptions.

Annual spend: $50,000.

Amex EveryDay Preferred for grocery stores

I almost hesitate to include this one since the cap on earning is so low, but if you can knock out $6,000 in grocery store purchases, then make enough additional purchases to get to 30 transactions in the same statement cycle, you can earn 27,000 flexible Membership Rewards points per year (and pay an annual fee of $95).

That's not very many Membership Rewards points, so in a world of unlimited manufactured spend you'd want to supplement them with, for example, a Premier Rewards Gold card. But in a world of less manufactured spend, it would roughly add up to a business class international award ticket every 3-5 years. That's not great compared to the status quo, but it's not terrible either.

Annual spend: $6,000

A good cashback card for unbonused spend

So far so good, right? The problem is that all these cards are terrible for anything except manufactured spend. The Ink Cash and EveryDay Preferred have foreign transaction fees (the "old" Blue Cash card does not for some reason), and the Ink Bold and Ink Plus only earn 1 Ultimate Rewards point per dollar on unbonused spend.

Obviously if you have a lot of money the answer is the BankAmericard Travel Rewards with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards, which earns 2.625% on all spend, has no foreign transaction fee, and is PIN-enabled for use internationally.

If you don't have a lot of money, you can use the PenFed Credit Union Power Cash Rewards card, which earns 1.5% cash back, or 2% if you have a PenFed Access America Checking Account. It's PIN-enabled and has no foreign transaction or annual fees, although the checking account requires a $500 average daily balance or monthly direct deposit to avoid a $10 monthly fee.

For domestic transactions you might consider using a Chase Freedom Unlimited to top up your Ultimate Rewards balance, but that card also has a foreign transaction fee so shouldn't be used internationally.


I think this is roughly the strategy I would pursue if my access to manufactured spend were suddenly constrained. It's pretty cheap (two $95 annual fees), pretty lucrative, and isn't very time-consuming, requiring only an average of about 6 total trips per month.

It would yield 125,000 or 250,000 Ultimate Rewards points, $2,240 in cash, and 27,000 Membership Rewards points. Whether or not that's sufficient to cover all your travel expenses depends on how many travel expenses you have, but it would certainly make a dent in mine.

American Express cards I'm thinking about


When I say that I don't chase signup bonuses, it sometimes gives readers the impression that I don't apply for new cards or that I don't think signup bonuses are a good deal. Nothing could be further from the truth!

If I need a new card, I'll apply for it, I'll call reconsideration lines, and I'll move credit around like anyone else hungry for approval. Likewise, if I'm planning to sign up for a card, I'll do my due diligence and hunt down the highest signup bonus available.

The difference, as I see it, come down to what cards I think I need. Since I earn the miles I redeem and redeem the miles I earn, I won't sign up for a new card just because it has a high signup bonus; I need to have a sense of where and when I'd redeem those miles. Otherwise, I might never redeem them and be left with a worthless novelty balance.

That being said, here are a few cards I'm currently thinking about adding to my collection.

Starwood Preferred Guest Business

I recently met the $50,000 spend threshold on my Platinum Delta SkyMiles Business American Express card, which makes the card all but useless for the rest of the calendar year. Last week I called American Express to ask which cards I was eligible to product change my card to, and was given two options: the Starwood Preferred Guest Business card, or the Blue for Business.

The latter product earns 1 non-flexible Membership Rewards point everywhere, which isn't very interesting, while the Starwood Preferred Guest card earns points that can be transferred to Delta, Alaska, or American (among others), in addition to booking Starwood hotel stays.

The main reason I'm interested in the Starwood card is for hotel stays. While Hilton is my primary hotel program because of their enormous footprint and the high bonused earning rate on the Hilton Surpass American Express, there are times when Hilton rooms aren't available or their properties are inconveniently located. At times like those, it's helpful to have points like Ultimate Rewards (for transfers to Hyatt) or Starpoints for booking alternatives.

On the one hand, requesting a product change to the Starwood Preferred Guest card would save me a hard credit pull and the risk of having my application denied. On the other hand, it would permanently cost me the 25,000 Starpoints I would earn if I applied for the card from scratch.

Ultimately, given the choice between canceling my Delta card, keeping it, or product changing to Starwood Preferred Guest, I'm leaning towards the product change, even if that means leaving 25,000 Starpoints on the table.

New "Old" Blue Cash

While my pre-devaluation "Old" Blue Cash card was closed by American Express in December, the "Old" Blue Cash card is still available, albeit in stunted form, and still earns up to $2,240 in annual cash back on purchases at supermarkets, gas stations, and drug stores. It's not as outrageously good a deal as it was before bonused earning was capped at $50,000 in yearly spend, but it's still low-hanging fruit, and I'm considering applying for another.

Amex EveryDay Preferred

While I'm not thrilled about the $95 annual fee, the EveryDay Preferred earns 4.5 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at grocery stores (on up to $6,000 in spend) and 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations (uncapped) when you make 30 purchases during your statement cycle.

I don't find Membership Rewards points to be particularly valuable, but this card would be a highly efficient method of earning Delta SkyMiles compared to my Delta Platinum Business American Express, and with a much lower annual fee. Delta is my primary airline program for domestic travel, so being able to earn those miles faster means paying less for the redemptions I already know I'm going to make.

The tradeoff, assuming I product change my Delta card to a Starwood card, would be giving up the opportunity to earn 20,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles per year through credit card spend.

However, I've already secured Silver Medallion status for 2016, and I don't trust Delta enough to pay a $195 annual fee purely in the hope that the SkyMiles program will retain value in 2017 and beyond.


When thinking about my credit card applications, as you can see above, signup bonuses play virtually no role in deciding whether to apply. If the Amex EveryDay Preferred is worth getting, it's worth getting in order to manufacture spend on the card year-round, not because its signup bonus was temporarily raised to 30,000 Membership Rewards points.

Likewise, for the convenience of a product change (keeping the same account number, avoiding a credit pull, etc.) I'll go so far as to permanently give up the chance to earn a 25,000 Starpoint signup bonus, because I believe the card is worth spending money on year-round, not just in order to trigger a one-time payday.

How important is diversifying manufactured spend?

I often highlight a concept I like to call "imputed redemption values:" the dollar cost of a hotel night (after taxes and fees) that makes it worth redeeming that hotel's rewards currency instead of Barclaycard Arrival+ miles earned by manufacturing the same amount of spend and earning the equivalent of 2.22% cash back, when the miles earned are redeemed against travel purchases.

These imputed redemption values are an attempt to synthesize three values: the earning rate of a hotel chains's co-branded credit card; the number of hotel points required for each property in that hotel's portfolio; and the amount of cash you would earn putting the necessary manufactured spend on a 2.22% cash back card instead.

For example, here are the imputed redemption values I generated for a Hilton HHonors member manufacturing spent with an American Express Surpass card at gas stations and grocery stores:

It's important to note these are break-even values: if a hotel room costs 40,000 HHonors points or $148 after taxes and fees, then the exact same amount of manufactured spend is required, whether it's on a Surpass American Express or Arrival+ MasterCard. As a 40,000 point room gets more expensive, HHonors points become a better value, and as it gets cheaper, Arrival+ miles become a better value.

At the exact imputed redemption value, your decision will depend on your own balances: if you have been inadvisedly stockpiling HHonors points, you should be eager to cut your loses and redeem them, while if you're saving up HHonors points for a future high-value redemption you might lean towards redeeming Arrival+ miles instead.

Should you strongly prefer cash over loyalty currencies in general?

I've been thinking about this question lately in two contexts.

In the comments to my recent post on using American Express gift cards, reader Brown wrote:

"However the most important thing is it shifts away my spending on Arrival+.

"I have a long list waiting to be redeemed on my Arrival+, like car rentals and hotels using points& cash. I believe Barclay cannot allow huge spending on their card, unlike Amex. I try to keep it below 12k each month."

Meanwhile, on February 4 Frequent Miler reflected on the opportunity cost of manufacturing elite status instead of cash back. He wrote:

"Unless you value Diamond status at more than a few hundred dollars, or you value Hilton points more than I do, I don’t see manufacturing Diamond status as a great opportunity. In this analysis, the value of the earned points and status are maybe equal to the opportunity cost. That’s not enough, in my book. As a rule of thumb, I believe that you should value the earned points and benefits much more than the opportunity cost, to make it worth doing." [emphasis mine]

These are directly opposite conclusions based on the same set of facts:

  • All else being equal, cash is usually preferable to hotel points;
  • But all else isn't equal — different cards are used to earn each, and there's an inherent value to spreading manufactured spend over more cards rather than fewer (within reason).

Is there a way to thoughtfully resolve this contradiction?

Why use less lucrative cards to begin with?

I think Frequent Miler is begging the question when he insists that cash is better than airline or hotel rewards currencies. He says you should prefer cash, but you already prefer cash. The only reason you'd find yourself earning hotel points or airline miles is that you've already exhausted all your most-rewarding cash-back-earning credit cards.

After all, the "new old Blue Cash" only earns 5% cash back on up to $50,000 in purchases per year — that's just over $4,000 in spend per month. Assuming you have access to more manufactured spend than that, at some point you're going to have to decide which cards you want to put the rest of your manufactured spend budget on.

In other words, you're going to run out of supercharged cards to manufacture spend on. You'll hit annual spend limits or, failing that, realize that your card issuers aren't going to let you run up multiple times your credit limit each month forever. But unless you want to stop manufacturing spend, you're going to need to dig deeper into your credit card portfolio.

That's the point where you'll need to make a conscious decision about which cards to put additional manufactured spend on, and it's at that point metrics like imputed redemption values can aid in your decision making.

For that marginal manufactured spend, whether it's $10,000 or $100,000, you should try to put spend on the cards that most closely approximate (or, ideally, exceed!) your highest-earning, unlimited cash back credit card (in my analysis the Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard), while not drawing additional attention from any one card issuer.

Conclusion: diversify purposefully

You shouldn't manufacture spend on a Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express just because I do, or just because it has, along with the Club Carlson Premier card, one of the most favorable imputed redemption value structures.

If you decide to manufacture spend on those cards, and others, you should do so because you find the value you receive from redeeming those rewards currencies competitive with the value you receive from your Barclaycard Arrival+ card, and you've reached your comfort level with Arrival+ spend.

Why everyone's talking about the Diners Club Card Elite

Back in September I was the first blogger to observe that the new Diners Club Card Elite, which earns 3 Club Rewards points per dollar spent at "grocery stores, supermarkets, drug stores, pharmacies and automobile fuel service stations when you pay at the pump," allows points transfers, according to Flyertalk, to Starwood Preferred Guest at the not-totally-unreasonable rate of 1250 Club Rewards points to 750 Starpoints.

Personally, I don't pay $300 annual fees, so I was a bit surprised to find that the Diners Club Card Elite was one of the most popular topics of conversation last weekend in Phoenix. That convinced me to take a second look at the card's value proposition.

Finding the right comparison

In my first back-of-the-envelope calculation, I compared the Diners Club Card Elite to the "old" Blue Cash, which turned out to be an unfortunately timely comparison, given the wave of Blue Cash shutdowns (and PayPal warnings!) that occurred in October.

It turned out that most folks I spoke with in Phoenix were actually comparing the Diners Club Card Elite not to a straight cash back card like Blue Cash, but rather to the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card, which earns 1 Starpoint per dollar spent.

This comparison is complicated by the fact that the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express and Diners Club Card Elite earn points, while their annual fees have to be paid in US dollars. What we need is a common point of measurement, which is happily provided, as usual, by the Barclaycard Arrival Plus MasterCard.

Since the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express earns just 1 Starpoint per dollar, and has no bonus categories (besides SPG properties themselves), anyone who is willing to manufacture spend on the card is already implicitly giving their Starpoints a value of at least 2.2 cents each by foregoing the same amount of spend on the Barclaycard Arrival Plus MasterCard.

Since the Diners Club Card Elite, in its extremely common bonus categories, earns 1.8 Starpoints per dollar spent, a user will break even when she spends, in bonus categories, that amount of bonused spend which generates the $235 difference in the annual fees between the Diners Club Card Elite and the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express.

That break-even amount, remarkably, is just $13,352. At that level of spend, a user will generate 40,057 Club Rewards points, which can be transferred to 24,034 Starpoints, or 10,682 more than with the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express. As shown above, those points are worth $235, the difference in the two cards' annual fees.


On this blog, I always try to go where the numbers take me, leaving at the door as much prejudice and superstition as possible. And that's what the numbers say: at quite low levels of bonused spend, the Diners Club Card Elite generates enough "excess" Starpoints to justify paying the annual fee, assuming you do, in fact, value Starpoints at 2.2 cents or more each.

But this analysis requires two big caveats. First, there are other cards which bonus grocery store spend, like the American Express Preferred Rewards Gold and Hilton HHonors Surpass, and the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards cards. Ironically, the $300 annual fee of the Diners Club Card Elite will pay the annual fees of all three of those cards ($175, $75, and $49, respectively). And that's a big problem with paying high annual fees: it's not that it's impossible to recoup the annual fee in value – of course it's possible. But it requires a commitment to doing so, at the expense of other points you may want or need over the course of the year.

The second caveat is that any comparison with the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest or Barclaycard Arrival Plus is inherently misleading, since those cards earn at the same rate regardless of the merchant, while the Diners Club Card Elite requires cannibalizing already-bonused grocery or drug store spend.

Unless, of course, your "old" Blue Cash card has already been shut down. In that case I think there's a clear argument for moving drug store spend, a cheap and plentiful, but now rarely-bonused, merchant category, to the Diners Club Card Elite.

Back-of-the-envelope assessment of the Diners Club Card Elite

I saw today that Diners Club is now issuing consumer credit cards in the United States, and I mentioned on Twitter that the $300 annual fee might be worth paying if you value miles transferred from the program at more than 1.7 cents. That's an extortionate annual fee, and I won't be applying for the card myself, but in case you do value your airline miles that highly I want to show my work to explain how I arrived at that number.

The Diners Club Card Elite card gives 3 points per dollar spent at gas stations, grocery stores, and drug stores. The problem is that gas stations and grocery stores are already such heavily-bonused categories that neither, alone or together, could justify paying a $300 annual fee.

You can already earn 3 flexible Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations with the Amex Everyday Preferred card, and earn 2 US Bank Flexpoints per dollar spent at grocery stores (worth between 1.33 and 2 cents each when redeemed for airfare) while paying just under 50% the annual fee of the Diners Club Card Elite.

Drug stores, on the other hand, are not as frequently-bonused as they used to be, so the most relevant comparison is the "old" American Express Blue Cash card, which earns 5% cash back at drug stores after the first $6,500 in spend per membership year.

The Comparison

I consider the risk-minimal amount of spend at drug stores per month to be $13,000 for a single person, in most parts of the country (two PayPal accounts and a Serve account, if you have access to Family Dollar store locations). It's easy to spend more, but that provides a benchmark for monthly drug store spend.

Over the course of a year, that amount of spend would earn $7,540 with the "old" Blue Cash card (since the first $6,500 would earn just 1% cash back), or 468,000 transferrable Diners Club points (in which case you'd incur an annual fee of $300).

At that point it's easy to see that the surplus of $7,840 implies a value per transferred mile of 1.67 cents. If you value each one of your transferred miles at more than that, you might be better off with the Diners Club Card Elite.

Note the emphasis above: it's not worth earning the transferrable points if you occasionally redeem them for high-value awards – you need to value all the miles you earn, on average, at over 1.67 cents each.

While I used the "risk-minimal" amount of drug store spend in this comparison, in fact this is very close to the analytical limit: doubling annual drug store spend yields $15,340 in cash back and 936,000 transferrable points, or 1.63 cents per mile, because of the slowly diminishing importance of the $6,500 "penalty." In other words, having either or both cards doesn't affect the imputed mile valuation by much, regardless of your annual spend.

So, what are your miles worth?

From FlyerTalk, here are the transfer partners for the Diners Club rewards program (the catalog requires you to log in to view redemptions):

  • OneWorld: British Airways
  • SkyTeam: Delta Airlines, Korean Air.
  • Star Alliance: Air Canada, Eva Airways, SAS, South African Airways, Thai Airways.
  • Independent: Alaska Airlines, El Al Airlines, (1000:20), Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Iceland Air, Southwest Airlines (1500:1200), Virgin Atlantic.
  • Hotels: Best Western (1250:3300), Choice (1250:2400), Hilton (1250:2000), Hyatt (1250:750), Intercontinental Hotel Group (1250:1500), Marriott (1250:1500), Starwood (1250:750).
  • Rail: Amtrak.

What caught my eye here is the not-totally-unreasonable hotel transfer ratios, particularly the "mere" 40% penalty you incur transferring your points to Starwood Preferred Guest. At 0.6 Starpoints per Diners Club rewards point, you can earn 1.8 Starpoints per dollar spent at drug stores. While it doesn't convince me personally, there's certainly a lot of value that can be unlocked there — plus it's a good escape valve in case you decide to apply for the Diners Club card and end up unable to use the points for direct airline transfers.


In any case, that's how I glance at an earning ratio and decide what mile valuation is imputed – plus a quick review of the Diners Club Card Elite!

Quick update: my impromptu January application cycle

[update 1/11/14: I never got around to calling Chase about my British Airways application, but today I saw that it had been added to my online accounts with a $2,000 credit line.]

Yesterday I announced that in honor of the 5% cash back "old" Blue Cash card still being available, I was moving my next round of applications up from the beginning of February. That meant scrounging around for the best, currently-available, signup bonuses. Unfortunately, the Alaska Airlines offer I wrote about in my "perfect storm" post is no longer available. Here's what I ended up applying for:

  1. American Express "old" Blue Cash. No signup bonus, no minimum spend requirement, no annual fee. 5% cash back at drug stores after spending $6,500 each year. Result: immediate online approval, $1,000 credit limit.
  2. Citi Platinum Select / AAdvantage World MasterCard. 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 within the first 3 months. Result: approval after calling the "status check" number, (888) 201-4523, $3,000 credit limit.
  3. Barclaycard US Airways MasterCard. 35,000 miles after first purchase. Result: immediate online approval, $1,000 credit limit.
  4. Chase British Airways Visa Signature. 100,000 miles after spending $20,000 within 12 months. Result: application pending. I called into the application status line today, (800)-436-7927, but have still been unable to get a decision or shuffle my credit limits around to secure approval. I'll wait and call back on Monday.

As you can see, because this application cycle was impromptu, I didn't have a chance to massage my credit by making sure all my credit card statements closed with a low or zero balance. My day-to-day high utilization rate negatively impacts my score between application cycles, making me look less credit-worthy (even though I always pay off my balances in full).

However, this doesn't bother me. I intend to only use the US Airways card once, to secure the signup bonus, and spend just $3,000 on the American Airlines card, so those low credit limits aren't a problem.

The $1,000 credit limit on the Blue Cash card, on the other hand, would be an issue except for the fact that American Express makes it easy to shuffle your credit limits between cards, so I'll be able to move all but a small part of my $10,000 Hilton HHonors American Express credit limit over to my new Blue Cash card (this is only possible within personal and business cards, not between them). That'll give me more than enough room to manufacture spend on my new 5% cash back card.

All in all, I'm pleased with the results of this application cycle, and hopefully I'll get approval for my British Airways application in the next day or two, possibly after moving part of my credit limit over from my Chase Sapphire Preferred card.